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A new twist for open-source software: innovation

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October 05, 2005

A new twist for open-source software: innovation

Steve Hamm

Open source software is a lot of good things. It's inexpensive, shared, and creates alternatives to monopolistic proprietary software. Up until recently, however, it hasn't been very technically innovative. Most packages so far have copied the basic functionality of pre-existing commercial software. Now, that's changing. Flock is one example. It's the new open-source browser designed with social computing in mind. I blogged about it earlier today. Another example: Zimbra, an alternative to Microsoft's Exchange server program. Its goal is spare people many of the headaches of managing hundreds of e-mails a day.

While Yahoo, AOL, and Google are taking on Microsoft in the sphere of consumer e-mail, Zimbra Inc. is focusing on enterprise mail. The two-year-old company, which launched publicly on Oct. 5, offers a Web e-mail client, but most of its engineering work is concentrated on the server. Its Zimbra Collaboration Suite runs on Linux, Unix, Windows and MacOS servers, and supports most popular e-mail clients, including Microsoft's Outlook. Zimbra (name taken from Talking Heads song. What's not to like?) has some pre-existing competition in the open-source sphere, including Scalix.

Zimbra claims it's pioneering with technical innovations. It has re-architected its mail server from the ground up to work on the Web, using open industry tech standards including AJAX, XML, and Web containers.

07:50 AM

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I built this site in one day. This shows how easy it really is to build a AJAX page with little programming.

Posted by: Dana at October 5, 2005 12:52 PM


Yes, it is a trend that Open Source is showing very significant innovation. Until recently, we had to be derivative. That was because we chose to build our own infrastructure rather than depend on a proprietary infrastructure. And thus, we had years of building to do just to catch up to the state of the art.

One area in which innovation and model change are very visible to me is Java. Remember that Sun built the entire Java Community Process and Community Source model to provide some of the advantages of Open Source without what Sun considered the disadvantage - that there wasn't a strong property model. Community source would encourage collaboration while providing an owner (mostly Sun) with an incentive to drive development of the product.

It didn't work out that way.

If you look at the Java space today, essentially all of the innovative projects are Open Source. Hibernate, Struts, the list goes on. And the innovators seem to have found the motivation to do this while remaining within the Open Source model.

This is true for a lot of other areas as well. You mentioned web browsers. Of course, there's Firefox, which created or popularized many of the features that Microsoft says it will duplicate in the next Internet Explorer. But web servers are a big area too. Apache still dominates the market, and it wasn't possible to create the web without Open Source, even though proprietary software manufacturers tried. Remember Ted Nelson and the Xanadu project?

Linux leads operating system development. No other OS runs on watches and supercomputers, and it has features available nowhere else. Taking over the lead from Unix wasn't much of a fight, since the manufacturers never figured out how to collaborate when they wanted to compete. The GPL makes that a lot easier.

Yes, Open Source is taking over the creative lead in a lot of technologies. The purpose of intellectual property law is to promote innovation. But tight control is the only model it knows. Now that we've found another way to innovate, intellectual property law is going to have to change to keep up with that.


Bruce Perens

Posted by: Bruce Perens at October 5, 2005 01:06 PM

Flock may well be innovative, but we haven't seen it yet. Zimbra may be a great corporate email package (I have no idea), but what's innovative about using AJAX and XML for email? It's especially strange that you're saying it's innovative compared to Microsoft. Microsoft not only invented the XMLHttpRequest object that is the foundation of AJAX web development in 1998, but they created it for, guess what, Exchange's Outlook Web Access email client...

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying open source software can't innovate. I'm just saying this post doesn't make that point well at all.

Posted by: Josh Christie at October 5, 2005 01:23 PM

Really liked the Zimbra demo and just started a compile of the source code (some interesting mash ups there). However - did not see the source code for scalix - they are close sourced - they but are linux based though. However openExchange is open source - we run it here at our SOHO. But plan to move to Zimbra if our install goes well - I am on the Zimbra forums and the support there has been good

Posted by: Randy Gueth at October 5, 2005 01:29 PM

If you think that open source doesn't innovate, you need to take your head out of the sand. There's been innovation in open source for as long as I've been involved (10+ years). Far more innovation than I've seen in any of the commericial software companies for which I've worked.

Posted by: me at October 5, 2005 03:03 PM

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